More than 8,000 people live in Smithville, Missouri, at least according to the person answering the phone at City Hall. I found the population surprising because, even though there's still a downtown in Smithville, the so-called "business district" reminded me of the forlorn hamlet in The Last Picture Show. There used to be a movie house and two drugstores and a hospital in downtown Smithville, but they're gone now. The Rialto Theatre closed in the 1950s, and the hospital never reopened after the flood of 1965.
The last baby born in Smithville Community Hospital was Jonathan Justus, a bouncing boy delivered on April 18, 1965. His parents, Krauss and Ann Justus, ran the Justus Drugstore at 106 West Main Street. Two months after Jonathan's arrival, downtown Smithville was devastated when the Little Platte River swept past its banks and right through the heart of town. After scrambling to move merchandise to higher shelves, Krauss and an assistant barely made it out of the pharmacy alive, crawling up through the attic and kicking out the air vents to get to the roof.
The family's drugstore survived. Ann was the pharmacist, and there was a soda fountain tucked in the back, along with a makeshift kitchen with an oven, a four-burner stove, and just enough room for an employee to make a grilled cheese sandwich or to plate up a meatloaf dinner. The Justus family sold the business to a new owner in 2000 but kept the building. The last tenant left in 2006.
And that's when the last baby born in Smithville came home. Jonathan Justus and his wife, Camille Eklof, had been working at a restaurant in France for most of 2005 when circumstances forced them back to the United States.
"We were essentially kicked out for working there without a permit," Justus says.
Justus and Eklof had no plans to stay in Smithville. But looking at the old drugstore reminded Justus of a recurring dream that he'd never taken seriously. "During my childhood, we served breakfast and lunch in the drugstore, but I would wake up from these dreams where I was cooking dinner in the building."
And that's what he's been doing since last May at the 66-seat Justus Drugstore, now a sleek and snazzy restaurant that looks nothing like a pharmacy. The old soda fountain (with the original chrome-plated stools) has been refashioned to serve as the well-stocked bar, and dining tables are made from locally grown woods and lacquered sorghum reeds. The shiny steel exhibition kitchen becomes the focus of the room — particularly after dusk, when it positively glows around Justus and his staff, including former Zin chef Jeffrey Scott, now this restaurant's chef de cuisine.
I've been telling friends that Justus Drugstore is the best new restaurant in Kansas City that isn't in Kansas City. It's not that far away, though — if the traffic's not congested north of the Broadway Bridge, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the turn on Highway DD, which leads to Smithville's main drag. (When they give directions to their place, Justus and Eklof like to describe the building as "Art Moderne," but it's really a nondescript one-story structure.) Justus Drugstore is sophisticated, yes. But it's not expensive or hoity-toity. On the two nights I visited, Eklof and one waitress were sharing duties as servers, bartenders, food runners and sommeliers.
One evening, my friends Bob and Ryan ignored the wine list after falling for Eklof's vivid description of the elixer du jour, that day's cocktail, made with one of Justus' house-made infused vodkas. This one was blueberry vodka served with tonic and lime. "It's very pretty and tastes like a limeade," Ryan said.